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Diamond in the Rough

Washington, Once Again a Baseball Town, May Need a Refresher Course in Building a Fan Base

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 30, 2004; Page C01

As we sort out the minor details, such as who will own the team, what the name will be, and how much money will have to be paid to the big whiner in Baltimore, let us pause to ask the deeper philosophical question:

Is Washington really a baseball town?

Glory days: The Senators take on the Yankees at D.C.'s Griffith Stadium in the season opener, April 17, 1956. Will today's Washington root, root, root for the new home team? (Evan Vucci -- AP)

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Chicago is a baseball town. Boston is a baseball town. St. Louis is a baseball town.


Five years from now, when the novelty of a new team and a new stadium has worn off, when the lobbyists are bored with their box seats, when the Washington Partisans have (and we are just noodling with the worst-case scenario) an unchallenged incumbency in last place, how many fans will still have baseball fever?

Baseball promoters in Washington give a standard answer: Washington can be a great baseball town, but a winning ball club will make it a lot easier.

"Everybody loves a winner, and they want to be associated with it, psychologically," said Charlie Brotman, the former public address announcer for the Washington Senators and the master of ceremonies at yesterday's announcement that baseball has come back to Washington.

"After the third year they're going to have to start playing at least .500 ball," he said. "Washington is definitely a good baseball town, a good sports town. But when you win, it's the best sports town."

Columnist and baseball fanatic George Will echoes this point.

"Washington, having the highest concentration of ambition pound for pound and square foot on the planet, and therefore the highest ratio of impatience to serenity, is a town that likes winners," he said. Baseball, he noted, involves a lot of losing. Superior hitters still fail about 70 percent of the time. "In baseball the best team in the league is going to walk off with a loss about 60 times a year."

Thus Washington may have to overcome its natural disdain for anything that smacks of failure. Historically, the city has not had a lot of lovable losers. Whoever loses the presidential race in November will never eat lunch in this town again.

Football is the exception. No franchise in the National Football League is as valuable as the Redskins, and for Monday night's game they lured more than 90,000 people to the logistical nightmare of FedEx Field. By contrast, the Wizards, née Bullets, have had trouble filling the seats over the years in part because of an astonishing run of mediocrity.

One explanation is the big-event theory. Brotman said that Washingtonians are "sophisticated" about events and want to be at the big show, the prizefight, the prime-time football game. The Redskins have only eight home games. But a professional basketball team has 41 home games, and baseball is an everyday sport for half the year, with 81 home games.

That's a lot of tickets to sell. But William Hanbury, president of the Washington, D.C., Convention and Tourism Corp., radiated confidence at the announcement at the City Museum yesterday as he listened to city leaders congratulate themselves for getting a team.

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